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NHL Power Rankings: Mid-season Stanley Cup contenders and pretenders

Now that we are officially into the second half of the 2017-18 NHL season we are going to start rolling out our PHT Power Rankings on a weekly basis instead of the bi-weekly basis we had been doing in the first half.

After looking at the top trade deadline candidates that could be available a week ago, this week we are going to take a look at the top Stanley Cup contenders … as well as the teams that are pretenders. Plus, the teams that need to just start looking ahead to next season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects and expected teams at the top of the list. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators are all there, and thanks to their recent surge over the past month or two, as are the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Also there: The Vegas Golden Knights, a team that just keeps getting better.

So let us get to it and take a look at where we have everybody sitting right now.

Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have the most talented roster in the league and seem to be in a position to make a significant move at the trade deadline. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

2. Vegas Golden Knights — They are getting stronger and better as the season progresses. They are becoming a dominant possession team, they are outshooting everybody they play every night, they have great offense, and a Stanley Cup winning goalie. This team is for real. They are a threat.

3. Boston Bruins — They have the best line in hockey and Tuukka Rask seems to be back to being an elite goaltender. They have been borderline unbeatable with him in the lineup.

4. Nashville Predators — They are finally fully healthy and finally the team that David Poile constructed. Where is the weakness? There does not seem to be one.

5. Washington Capitals — They are back on top of the Metropolitan Division even though some of their top players have been a little quiet offensively in recent weeks. When those guys get going again, watch out. The roster on paper may not be as impressive as the past two years, and they may not win the Presidents’ Trophy, but they are still good. Really good.

6. Winnipeg Jets — They have a couple of significant injuries right now with Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba on the shelf, but what a powerful offense. With the Jets a lot of it comes down to whether or not they can keep getting the same level of goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are back. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are taking over games, they are starting to figure out the lineup, and they are probably one move away from really putting a scary team on the ice.

8. St. Louis Blues — Like the Jets I feel like a lot of this story is going to be decided by goaltending. Jake Allen has been okay, Carter Hutton has been great but he’s hardly played. Good defensive team, couple of high-end offensive players and some solid depth especially now that Jaden Schwartz is back.

9.  Toronto Maple Leafs — They can score with anybody in the NHL but they still need to make a tweak or two to their defense.

Could Go Either Way

10. New Jersey Devils — I feel like this might be a little high, but it also feels right. This is a pretty good team, but maybe not quite a true contender yet.

11. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings are still the Kings. Dominant possession team, tough to score against, kind of a mediocre offense. I don’t think they are truly a “contender” at this point, but they are also still a team that could be dangerous. Or they could miss the playoffs entirely. It is a bizarre team.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They have really slid recently, but they still have a lot of talent. They really need Sergei Bobrovsky to solve his postseason demons though.

13. San Jose Sharks — I might have them a little bit higher if they still had Joe Thornton, but that is a huge blow at the moment and one that is going to be difficult to overcome. He is still the engine that drives them.

Pretenders

14. Dallas Stars — They’ve spent a ton of money on a team that is just … kind of good?

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Are the Flyers good? It really just depends on the day. Sometimes they look great. Sometimes they look awful. They have a pretty dominant top part of the lineup. The bottom of the lineup leaves a lot to be desired.

16. Minnesota Wild — A healthy Nino Neiderreiter and Zach Parise in the lineup together might make a difference, but it still feels like a pretty mediocre team overall.

17. Calgary Flames — They have been one of the bigger disappointments in the league this season. If you had told me at the start of the year Mike Smith would have a .922 save percentage I would have figured this would be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Mike Smith has that, but they are not even a lock to make the playoffs.

18. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries just keep devastating this team this season. Every time it feels like they are getting healthy, somebody else goes out of the lineup. John Gibson is currently banged up now.

19. New York Islanders —  That offense can be great, but it is almost impossible to see them winning much in the playoffs — assuming they even get there — with that goaltending situation. Is there anybody available at the trade deadline that could make that much of a difference?

20. New York Rangers — They are still very much in the playoff race but it seems pretty clear they are ready to start selling off pieces before the trade deadline.

21. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Nathan MacKinnon for a few weeks could be a season-altering (perhaps season crushing?) blow to a team that has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the NHL this season.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — Goaltending and a lack of finishing ability on offense failed them again.

See you Next Season

23. Chicago Blackhawks –– Yeah, I am giving up on them this season. Corey Crawford might come back at some point and that could help if he is healthy and able to keep playing like he was earlier this season, but as of Monday they are still six points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. That is a tough gap to make up this late in the season.

24. Florida Panthers — There is still a young core here you can win with. But do they have the right people in place to build around it?

25. Detroit Red Wings — Given the roster and the salary cap situation it is going to be a while before this team is a factor again.

26. Vancouver Canucks — Why are you trying to re-sign Erik Gudbranson? Is that really what you need to continue this rebuild?

27. Montreal Canadiens — Will they tear it down at the trade deadline or maintain the status quo of mediocrity?

28. Edmonton Oilers — How does a team with Connor McDavid on his entry level contract end up this bad? This team is simply one of the greatest coaching and front office failures in recent NHL history.

29. Ottawa Senators — There is just nothing to be excited about here. The team stinks, the best player will probably be gone within the next two years and the owner is a jerk that seems to hate his own fans.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Jack Eichel has been great and everything the Sabres could have hoped. The rest of the rebuild has been a spectacular failure.

31.  Arizona Coyotes — They are one of the youngest teams in the league that is still lacking talent in a lot of key areas. It is just an impossible situation for this season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: William Karlsson’s contract conundrum; worrisome free agent signings?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Here’s a look at why William Karlsson has become the NHL’s most intriguing contract conundrum this summer. (The Hockey News)

• We’ve had a litany of storylines thus far this summer, but here’s a list of 11 that have yet to play out. (Sportsnet)

• The Minnesota Wild may start looking at their stable of youth to help the team on the ice this season. (NHL.com)

• Looking for an NHL team on Forbes’ new list of the top 50 richest sporting franchises in the world? Hint: You won’t find one. (Sportsnet)

• Every summer, some of the contracts teams extend to free agents are worrisome. Here’s a few of those from this summer. (Yahoo Sports Canada)

• After showing good signs at the AHL and NHL level last season, what is next for Montreal Canadiens forward Nikita Scherbak? (Eyes on the Prize)

• After the latest developments in a Minnesota courtroom, what is next in the concussion lawsuit against the NHL? (The Athletic)

• There’s been a lot of talk about Jacob Trouba and his contract situation but what about his other half, Josh Morrissey? (Winnipeg Sun)

• National Tattoo Day in Canada meant a celebration of inking for Montreal Canadiens fans. (Montreal Gazette)

• Here’s a list of five NHL players primed for comeback seasons in 2018-19. (FanSided)

• The latest NHL concussion ruling likely means the splintering of cases across several jurisdictions. (Business Insurance)

• A wishlist for NHL 19. (The Sports Daily)

• Are the Vancouver Canucks following in the footsteps of the Winnipeg Jets? (The Canuck Way)

• These guys haven’t hit the ice, nor made their respective team’s opening night roster. But here’s the top Calder candidates for next season. (The Grueling Truth)

• New chest pad regulations for NHL goaltenders are already surrounded in injury controversy. (The Comeback)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

What’s the right contract for Tom Wilson, Capitals?

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What kind of price to put on grit, agitation, intimidation?

In the NHL, it’s something of a Rorschach Test for GMs. It’s easier to gauge the value of elite players and middle-of-the-pack guys when scoring is their calling card, but when it comes to “intangibles,” prices can vary.

Even with that in mind, Tom Wilson stands as a tricky test case.

You can tie yourself in knots examining the agitating winger, especially if you’re a Washington Capitals fan nervously hoping that the RFA signs a deal soon. Relief won’t come from the latest update, either; the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Wilson’s agent Mark Guy said that the two sides aren’t “done or close.”

Khurshudyan provides some interesting ranges for a possible contract: Guy told her that a new deal could be “north of four years,” while Washington also indicated a preference for a long-term agreement. The salary cap could fall somewhere in the $3.5-$4.5 million range, according to Khurshudyan.

With Wilson (probably wisely) opting against salary arbitration, it’s a lot tougher to guess when something will formulate.

But, hey, that gives hockey people plenty of time to bicker about his value. Back when Wilson was suspended during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert summarized the debate regarding the 24-year-old’s value.

” … He is more accurately described a middle-six forward who has been thrust into a bigger role because Barry Trotz is trying to spread the offense across the first two lines more evenly. A lot is made of the fact that Wilson finished with 32 points at 5-on-5 this season, because that was fourth on the Capitals behind only Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Nick Backstrom. But look at the guys who had that many 5-on-5 points this year: Alex DeBrincat, Dustin Brown, Gabe Landeskog, Gus Nyquist, Josh Bailey, Kevin Fiala, and Vince Trocheck. These are guys for whom a pretty reasonable evaluation is “They’re mostly pretty good,” but not much more than that, and with the exception of Landeskog and Brown, none of them played with guys who, like Ovechkin, were legit MVP candidates.

The remarkable thing about Wilson is that various debates can swing both ways.

From an “intangibles” perspective, you could argue that he can be something of a poor man’s Todd Bertuzzi, “opening up space” for forwards such as Alex Ovechkin, and maybe get opponents off their game with a violent hit or a fight. Conversely, someone could argue that his tendency to take penalties could put his team in a bad position, or perhaps that players looking to deliver crushing checks may find themselves out of position.

The pure numbers get more complicated as you burrow deeper.

On one hand, his career-high came this season, with a modest 14 goals and 35 points. While he rode shotgun with Ovechkin for significant chunks of time, he also didn’t get a lot of reps on the Capitals’ deadly power play.

Wilson’s possession stats were pretty good for a player of his style … yet again, that sometimes came with high-end players, and he also enjoyed some cushy offensive zone starts in some cases, too.

Still, a guy who can score a bit, hit a lot, and kill a ton of penalties brings quite a bit of value. As a former first-rounder (16th overall in 2012), few would doubt that the Caps hold Wilson in high regard.

The Capitals also boast a pretty robust $8.26M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, so even though they’ve been prudent when it comes to bringing back members of their championship squad, they’d struggle to say that they can’t afford to pay Wilson at full value.

*Phew*

Is your head spinning yet? That would be understandable, and maybe that explains why contract negotiations seem stilted. What kind of deal would make sense for Wilson?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks should still go bold after failing to land Tavares

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No doubt about it, landing John Tavares was the best-case scenario for the San Jose Sharks this summer. They showed as much with what was reported to be a generous offer, but it was not to be.

The question, then, is what is Plan B?

So far, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been content to lock up some noteworthy in-house talent, and that’s really soaked up a lot of that would-be Tavares money. After signing Joe Thornton for one year, extending Evander Kane to a big deal, and giving term to Tomas Hertl, the Sharks knocked off one of the final items on their to-do list by avoiding salary arbitration with Chris Tierney via a two-year deal.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the cap hit comes in at $2.9375 million per season.

As it stands, the Sharks aren’t actually all that flush with money. According to Cap Friendly, they’re only about $4.4M under the ceiling with all 23 roster spots covered.

Does that mean that Wilson can go tan on a beach for the rest of the summer? Maybe that’s the call now that Tavares is off the table, but allow some advice: the Sharks should instead go for it … in 2018-19.

There are a slew of interesting trade options for players with expiring contracts right now, and for many teams, that’s the stumbling block. Why give up assets just for a guy who can walk in free agency next summer? Such a thought process might explain the lack of an Erik Karlsson trade, in particular, right now.

The funny thing is, the Sharks might get protected from themselves by such a barrier.

Simply put, the Sharks’ core is aging, a point we’ve made plenty of times at PHT. Even beyond the obvious (Joe Thornton at 39), Brent Burns is already 33, Joe Pavelski is 34 and entering a contract year, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 31, and even recently extended Logan Couture is 29. Adding another risky long-term contract could make for a scary situation in San Jose, especially when you consider that Max Pacioretty – one of the optimal targets – is 29 himself.

(Jeff Skinner would theoretically be a more palatable risk since he’s 26, yet just about any long-term contract carries risks for an aging team such as the Sharks.)

Let’s list off the reasons why the Sharks should make big commitments, but mainly for 2018-19, since this is theoretically a great time to poach someone on an expiring contract.

  • Again, this team’s window could close soon. The Sharks might as well swing for the fences while they still can.
  • The free agent market is too shallow for a shark to swim.
  • Beyond the worrisome miles on key players (and the possibility that they might have to let Pavelski walk after this coming campaign), the Sharks are simply formatted for this. They’re already heading into 2019 without their first and fourth-round picks, while their two second-rounders could help them put together the sort of trade package that might be acceptable for a Skinner or Pacioretty.
  • Pacioretty would work under the cap, as his $4.5M cap hit essentially matches the room San Jose currently possesses. They’d either demote someone to the AHL or include some salary in a hypothetical trade to make it actually fit. Skinner’s a little pricier at $5.725M, but moving around deals or some salary retention would alleviate those concerns.
  • Both Skinner and Pacioretty could really give the Sharks that extra boost as scoring wingers. Pacioretty would play with the best center of his career – whether he’d land with Couture or Thornton – while Skinner would be shooting for his first-ever postseason bid. Naturally, both would carry contract motivations, which never hurts one’s ambition.
  • And, hey, maybe a player like Skinner or Pacioretty would earn such rave reviews during an audition that the Sharks decide to re-sign them anyway? The cap could always rise for 2019-20, and such a player could serve as a Pavelski replacement.

That’s a pretty decent list, right?

Now, naturally, the Canadiens and Hurricanes might just want to keep those players for themselves, or perhaps their asking prices will be too steep for San Jose. From here, it sure seems like the right strategy for the Sharks.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it would just be flat-out fun to watch Thornton set up Pacioretty for goal after goal …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trouba, Jets millions apart as arbitration date nears

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With less than 48 hours to go before his arbitration date, Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets are reportedly millions apart in valuation for the top-pairing defenseman.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Wednesday that Trouba is looking for $7 million per season while the Jets, at the moment, are sitting at the $4-million mark instead.

This isn’t unusual for a team to be low-balling ahead of an arbitration case while a player shoots for the moon — it’s an oft-used strategy.

Trouba’s underlying numbers suggest he’s among the league’s best rearguards, but when it comes to goals and assists, he doesn’t show as well. And with Trouba, there’s always the question about his durability, having completed 81 games just once in his career and never playing more than 65 in a season in his four other seasons in the NHL.

Arbitration is no fun for either side, where the dirty laundry is aired and teams tell players why they don’t deserve the money they think they do. But it appears increasingly likely that Trouba’s July 20 date will come to fruition in what would be a first for the Winnipeg Jets and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

The Jets also have forward Adam Lowry (July 22), Brandon Tanev (July 25) and Marko Dano (July 30) with scheduled arbitration hearings. Last week, the Jets handed Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck a six-year, $37 million contract, avoiding a potential arbitration hearing with him as well.

Looking at the comparables likely doesn’t favor Trouba and his current valuation of himself.

Take for instance Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s in the third year of a six-year deal that sees him pocketing $5.4 million per season.

Jones had 57 points last year, including a career-high 16 goals.

Trouba finished the season with three goals and 24 points and has eclipsed 30 just once (33) in his five-year career.

Colton Parayko also comes to mind.

The St. Louis Blues d-man signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer after a 35-point season and put up the same total in 2017-18.

Another deal that can be used as a comparison is Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Josi signed a seven-year, $28 million deal prior to the 2013-14 season.

In the two years before signing the deal, Josi’s numbers were comparable to Trouba’s and Josi is now likely going to get a significant pay raise after hovering around the 50-point mark for the past four seasons.

The end game, at least this season, likely results in a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 to $5.5 million for Trouba. The Jets have the option to give Trouba two years, but he would become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019-20 season, so a one-year deal makes sense for the Jets and will put both sides in the same scenario next season if a long-term deal isn’t hashed out before then.

Both sides have said they’d like to commit to one another long-term. The Jets would like to see Trouba’s production go up, and if he can hit the 45-50-point window this season, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be a second arbitration case but rather a long-term deal to stick in Winnipeg.

Trouba has been given everything he wanted after initially wanting out of Winnipeg two years ago. He’s on a contender playing on one of the league’s best shutdown tandems and commanding big minutes every night.

If he wants to get paid like an elite defenseman, he needs to score like one and will have every opportunity to earn the raise next summer, assuming the Jets hand him a one-year deal after their arbitration hearing on Friday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck